The “No Excuses” Era for the Public Schools

In some ways, thinking about part of the discussion that occurred last August at the National Urban League's annual conference in Washington, D.C. seems, from this side of September 11th, to be reaching back across a vast span of time when America's—and the world's—future seemed less clouded.

But that's not really true. Many things that were said about the crucial issues of the day before September 11th still apply. Nowhere is that more apparent than when the discussion turns to the quality of our public schooling.

That point was underscored by two developments which occurred last month.

One was Congressional enactment of what's been rightly described as "landmark" legislation intended to force significant improvement in the quality of education of now low-performing public schools.

The second was the release of a massive study by the Education Trust, a Washington-based research organization, which found nearly 4,600 public elementary schools across the nation that enrolled mostly black or Hispanic youngsters, or enrolled mostly poor youngsters, or both—and scored among the top third of the schools of their state in reading and mathematics.

What both these developments have done is to underscore two points.

One is that, just like their more affluent counterparts, large numbers of poor children, and African-American and Latino-American children attending public schools can learn to compete at the highest levels of achievement if they get the proper assistance.

The second is that those who run the public schools have no more excuses for not seeing to it that the high levels of achievement the Education Trust report has documented do not become the norm everywhere.

These were also the points made by many of the participants in our conference discussions on education last August.

We agreed that for African Americans, as for all other Americans, education is the staging ground for the march, as individuals and as a group, into the American mainstream. Being educated is not only required to earn a living in today's super-competitive global economy, where there's no hiding place from its demands for skill and knowledge and the ability to keep learning new things at a moment's notice. It's also fundamental to what being an American citizen means.

Thus, it's even more imperative to refuse to accept academic failure as an "option" for children who are poor, or not white. If it's true, as the Urban League's

slogan says, our children equal our destiny, we can't afford to have any of our children failing. To mix metaphors, Black America and America have got to have all of its people pulling on the oars if we're to continue that march into the mainstream.

Congress, in passing the $26.5-billion act last month, has put at least some money behind its rhetorical commitment

The law requires schools to ensure that all children can read by the third grade, and make all students proficient in reading and mathematics within 12 years. It mandates annual state-administered testing in those subjects from grades 3 through 8 so that it'll be clear to everyone how students are doing; and states would also have to measure the progress of specific subgroups of students, including poor and minority students.

Schools that initially fail to measure up can get extra federal aid. But their continued failure would make their students eligible to get financial support for transportation to another school, or for tutorial assistance, and the replacement of their staff and revision of their curriculum.

For all its good intentions, Washington still hasn't appropriated nearly enough money to fulfill these ambitious goals. But the legislation at least steers the nation's public schools in the right direction.

What direction is that?

It's the direction of no more excuses. No more pretending that if large numbers of students in a school aren't performing well, it's the students' fault.

It's not. It's the fault of adults around them.

Yes, that includes parents and other adults in communities around these schools. Part of the impetus for the Urban League's own Campaign for African-American Achievement is to mobilize parents and other adults in local communities to support the pursuit of academic achievement in their public schools.

But there are, in fact, plenty of examples of dedicated principals and teachers and community residents joining forces to improve a school's academic quality. It's happened in individual schools, like those cited in the Education Trust.

It's happened across a range of schools in one community, such as what's occurred the past three years in the 10,000-pupil Mount Vernon, New York school system. That suburb of New York City has seen the reading performance of its elementary school pupils soar to the top of the New York State lists.

It's not rocket science why Mount Vernon's done well, nor why 4,577 public schools made the Education Trust list.

That's what happens when you combine the native intelligence of children and their natural desire to want to do well with the commitment of a coalition of adults around them to making sure they know they're fully capable of the highest achievements, too.

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